Roughly eight years have passed since Matt Small met Mitch Marcus at Oakland's Stork Club, but Small hasn't gotten over that initial bedazzlement. Marcus, a Long Island-raised saxophonist with an unrepressed imagination, was performing with the art-rock band Mega-Mousse that night. Small was there to hang out. He recalls being fascinated by the young sax player. Small was even more impressed when he saw Marcus' eighteen-piece big band (Mitch Marcus Quintet +13) a couple years later.
At that time Matt Small was already immersed in the Bay Area art-rock scene. He had moved to San Francisco from his hometown of Philadelphia in 1997, and turned himself into a gun-for-hire. He anchored rhythm sections in several groups that varied in quality (his favorite was a bizarre quintet called Eskimo). But outside the art-rock world Small trafficked in canonical forms. He led an experimental chamber group called Crushing Spiral Ensemble. He could easily switch from jazz grooves to classical ostinatos. He was drawn to similarly high-caliber musicians whose rock or pop gigs belied their talent and sophistication. Marcus, he thought, was one of them.
It made sense for them to join forces, said Small. After all, the two seemed like spiritual twins. Both had begun composing music in high school, had a penchant for writing extremely difficult material, and were voracious listeners who could poach from any genre. Both were — and are — a little eccentric.
"I doubted you at first," said Marcus, when the two sat side-by-side during a recent interview at Marcus' North Berkeley flat.
"There's much to doubt," Small confessed.
Small learned to play bass (both electric and upright) in middle school and started writing music a few years later. As he got older the music got more and more complex. So complex, in fact, that he couldn't play it on four strings any more — the chord voicings got too muddy, he said. He now plays custom-made electric basses with two extra high strings, so that thee top half has a guitar's range while the bottom half plays a normal bass range. Small writes music the way some people write e-mail — prolific would be an understatement. And, said Marcus, it's always hard to play: "When I joined his band I think somebody said 'You had it coming to you.'"
Marcus is not exactly known for restraint either. He plays in no less than half a dozen groups, including the Afrofunk group Aphrodesia and folk-fusion outfit Japonize Elephants, in addition to Crushing Spiral and Matt Small's Chamber Ensemble. Formerly a clarinet player, he's proficient at just about every instrument in the woodwind family. He's seemingly indefatigable, having run a weekly jam session at San Francisco's Amnesia nightclub for five years. He writes arrangements for a variety of Bay Area musicians (most recently, a Weimar-era cabaret tune for Andrea Fultz's German Projekt). He plays piano for his wife's dance classes (she's the artistic director at Berkeley Ballet Theater) and for a new trio called the Invaders, which will open for Matt Small's Chamber Ensemble on Friday, May 29, at the Hillside Club in Berkeley. It will be Marcus' last hurrah before he moves back to New York.
What most distinguishes Marcus and Small from other workhorses is that they've built their careers playing difficult material. To be a professional musician is one thing; to make a living without sacrificing your artistic integrity is another. It requires talent, for sure, but also doggedness and intensity of purpose. It took a lot of shilling for Small and Marcus to rise up in the food chain, but at this point they play their own music on a pretty consistent basis. Marcus mostly pens for his quintet or the Invaders, while Small divides his time between three of his own bands: Crushing Spiral, the Matt Small Chamber Ensemble, and a cabaret group called the Bedlam Royals. Both of them write music in a through-composed style (meaning melodies with a full narrative arc, rather than a simple head-and-bridge structure) that many people would characterize as "classical." They often watch sports while practicing their instruments. They enjoy games that require a lot of hand-eye coordination, and sometimes hit the tennis courts together. (Marcus usually wins.)
Small promises to unveil several new pieces at the Hillside show, some of which use jazz improvisation in a classical template (e.g., a couple ensemble members will improvise while others play a fixed melody line). He says the music will alternately sound sensitive and "heavy-handed." He doesn't expect things to go entirely as planned. Marcus, for instance, agreed to play soprano sax in the chamber group, but will probably bring a whole arsenal of other woodwinds anyway. A band mutiny is always possible, Small acknowledged. He finds the idea titillating.
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